Loneliness Of Human Company
The autobiographical narrative in Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom, though hard to miss, could be anyone’s story.
In April last year, writer Amitav Ghosh received a manuscript. It was sent by someone who, Ghosh always believed, “would one day produce a great book”. Ghosh shared the following passage as a “foretaste” for the readers:
“One day, under the huge mango tree that stood in the schoolyard, with a bunch of schoolboys standing around me, mocking me for being the son of a mad woman, I thought suddenly and automatically: ‘I want to go home.’ And then I thought as suddenly, ‘I don’t want to go home.’ I remember thinking, ‘If I go on like this, I will go mad.’ I tried not to think too much about home, as a concept, after that. But each time Em came home, we all hoped, for a little while, that the pieces of the jigsaw would fall into place again. Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother. Four Pintos, somewhat love-battered, still standing.
I grew up being told that my mother had a nervous problem. Later, I was told it was a nervous breakdown. Then we had a diagnosis, for a brief while, she was said to be schizophrenic and was treated as one….”
One year later, the full meal arrived. The setting remained the same: one-bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment in Mahim, Mumbai. But, Pintos made way for Mendeses, and the manuscript gave way to a book. This was Mumbai based journalist and writer Jerry Pinto’s debut novel Em And The Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, 2012). Though a work of fiction, the thinly disguised autobiographical narrative in the book is hard to miss. But that shouldn’t concern us. This could be anyone’s story. To be brief, it’s a slot.
Slotting Exclusivities, The Convenient Farce of Compassion and Comedy of Being “Moved”
You can recall many lives that have been slotted – first by nature, then by you and me (sometimes having that abstract name – “society”) and finally by a faceless punching bag of collective conscience – the state.
You can replace the mad mother in the passage with a lame mother/deaf mother/dumb mother/blind mother, but the exclusivity quotient of the boy’s mother sticks. His mother is not like yours or mine. Even mothers need a defined human form – at least two healthy legs, two working hands, two working eyes, two working ears and a normal mind – to be normal mothers. Anything missing, and the mother has to get a slot – she is exclusive. She is a site to be visited by human organisations – the NGOs of the normals keen to show the “humane” bleeding heart and a spot for compassion tourism, drawing tourists from “giving-back-to-society” enthusiasts.
And she is also the recipient of state benefits - if the exclusivity isn’t “mental” (a fashionable renaming of “mad” slot), she may get the coveted government jobs, admissions to institutions, petrol pump dealerships and commercial space allotments with a PH affirmative action tag. But, that’s state with all its perfunctory morality. In her daily encounters with public space – the state has abandoned her. I used that for dramatic effect only. In fact, the state never owned her at first place. She is lonely when she needs something on a railway platform, in public buildings or staring at stairs leading to an ATM, crossing a road. But, that’s what she is destined for – don’t forget, she is a slot (nothing more, nothing less).
But, there is something farcical on the cover of Jerry Pinto’s account of a family growing up with a mentally challenged woman (and having suicidal tendencies). The cover carries recommendations for the book which somehow replicate how good human beings are morally trained to respond to the abnormal or exclusive people around them. Their need to feel compassionate carries with it the compulsion to be moved by such tales – the easy way out for the sympathy-oozing citizenship. So in a self-deluding reaction to such a tale, Amitav Ghosh recommends the book as “profoundly moving”. This is rubbish. And this is also a response of convenience. You need not find such women in a book, like you would find a pampered pets in your house. Many are easy to spot in the streets around you, just like stray dogs.
I was not moved. You shouldn’t be. The author never intended to do that, his prose is remarkably unsentimental. In fact, he has some good laughs to share with this compassionate world of normal people. The banality of the slotting game.
So the slotting vocabulary unfolds as soon as there is a candidate for it. We are quite generous with words. As men of the world who place a higher premium on our mental faculties, there is an effortlessness with which we roll out the shorter version for someone who has no claim to that (and hence, forfeits right to be human) – “mental”.
Watch the author himself read out an extract from the book which shows how easily the membership of this exclusive club is awarded and how swiftly it changes the course of conversation in a hospital (yes, some people who are lucky enough to make it to hospital for such ailments).
The Algebra of Competitive Sympathy and the Loneliness of Human Company
Let me recollect something. In March last year, a young man – no, a physically challenged young man – from Dumka district of Jharkhand crutched his way to New Delhi railway station. He is from a poor family of weavers, and his mother doesn’t accept that her son could have walked normally if she could have let some drops find their way to his mouth. For her, destiny doesn’t have easy solutions. Sanjay had come to Delhi to prepare for IAS recruitment examination – something for which thousands of “normal” young men women also flock to Delhi. From railway station to his small room in a North Delhi locality, Sanjay didn’t find anything to help his movement in the country’s capital. He has learnt to muscle and risk his movements on his crutches. But, he is still envied by many, most of all by “normal” young men eyeing top bureaucratic jobs in the country.
Their envy is also accompanied by a wish. They wish they had Sanjay’s level of handicap (a level that you should measure upto for having state benefits) to make the race easier for them. They eye the reservation in recruitment for physically challenged. Sanjay is eligible for that. The subtext in this wish is that Sanjay has been lucky in getting preferential treatment from a patronising state (caring state is too maudlin a phrase to be used in a power-drunk society).
In their private conversations, when there is no need to show how compassionate and politically correct they are, they feel that marking a seat for the disabled in Delhi Metro and DTC buses was enough generosity. The state has betrayed the able bodied intelligent young men and women by doling out the big favour of governmental positions to people who have not found nature’s favour for such coveted responsibilities. So, are you wondering how to share your sympathies? Or is that (sympathy) another politically incorrect word?
Sanjay knows sympathy comes with a heavy dose of patronising vibes. He also knows that in those exclusively moments of loneliness – he has no “human” and “normal” company. His only support are inanimate, uninspiring and modest twins – his crutches.
In our numerous sightings of not-so-normal entities, something in our normal existence finds uses for words that slot, “normal” human virtues like compassion and most importantly, universal private truth called indifference. The public emotion of being “moved” gives way to a more useful phrase – move on. And for us, two punching bags are always handy – the state and destiny. Who are we to correct the nature’s injustice? Well, hold on, that’s a script for many disturbing questions – first, who are we correct anything? As private islands adrift, we somehow deluded ourselves with that abstract human company – society. That’s the loneliness of human company.
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